"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 May 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Slow Budget



Discipline is a tough nut to

crack: coming up with a

blueprint before you start

building, doing a piece of

tangible work every few years,

holding costs down to the high

eight-figure range - and

learning to adjust to travel on

regular airplanes with Fabulous

Little People. But the motion

picture industry is ready for a

little hard-bellied

self-control, and it's anxious

to get started. The problem, as

The Wall Street Journal recently

explained, is that the industry

isn't much of a business; total

profit for the last decade for

all but a tiny handful of the

very biggest hits is quite close

to nothing at all. Left unclear

in the Journal story is what

method of accounting was used to

arrive at that claim: the kind

that's used when the

screenwriter has net points or

the kind the unindictable

bookkeepers use in most

nonillicit, non-entertainment

businesses? But on the evidence

of Ernest Goes to Africa and The Mod

Squad, we'll go ahead and bet

that zero dollars really means

zero dollars.


And so the studios that pay for

movies to be made are getting

serious about quality, betting

that well-made films will draw

sizable crowds. (Pause for

effect.) What they're really

getting serious about is cutting

costs; they're aiming to boost

the net not by boosting the

gross but by shifting the black

ink farther down the page.

"Instead of trying for more

hits," explains Disney exec Rob

Moore, "we're making sure that

more profit from the hits gets

to the bottom line." That's a

perfectly valid choice if that's

the way you want to go about

things. We just hope that no one

makes food or medicine this way.


The belt tightening has already

started to strangle some major

players - and don't ask what

they were doing down there. What

passes for hardship in the

shadow of the spectacle machine

is really pretty amusing: Dale

Pollock - you may know him, or

more likely not know him, as the

man who produced Meet the

Deedles - lost about US$10,000 a

month in studio support after

Disney "had to decide whether to

continue paying Mr. Pollock's

bills when it was clear he

wouldn't be producing another

movie for at least a year."

Adam Sandler suffered from

cutbacks, too, after studio

executives refused him the use

of a private jet for a European

press tour. He flew first class

on the studio's dime instead,

guaranteeing a fun time in the

air for hundreds of happy fellow

passengers. And Sharon Stone may

have to settle for less than

$15 million for appearing in the

sequel to Basic Instinct. No

word yet on whether this new

noncoddling approach has reduced

the rate of illegal immigrants

who are just coming to this

country for the private jets!



Nor will the Special Effects

Imagineers be spared the (real,

not computer-generated) rod. An

ongoing pissing competition at

Warner Brothers involves the

budget for The Incredible Mr.

Limpet, a $100 million remake of

a 1964 Don Knotts comedy about

the man who becomes a fish, and

a movie whose ballooning FX

budget would bring extra shivers

to Knotts' inimitable Mr. Furley

character. Semi-attached

director Steve Oedekerk ($20

Million Man Jim Carrey continues

to flirt with the project) wants

the pencil pushers to give him

an extra $30 million for

extra-spectacular effects.

Meanwhile, 250 million nonfans

of Don Knotts are already making

plans to stay away in droves.

For a motion picture industry

that keeps on selling stale

cookies, cutting back on the

amount of expensive grit and

hair in the batter should come

as good news. But for moviegoers

who are expected to see this

piece of crap, the news that

it's an inexpensive piece of

crap should make, well, a novel

advertising campaign.


Even if the stories aren't

getting any fresher or better,

the Journal reports that the

industry is beginning to come

around to the idea that the

stories should actually exist

before the cash starts gushing.

The producer responsible for a

1996 Jean-Claude Van Damme film

- the one in which Van Damme is

a scrappy underdog who rises to

victory, in case you've

forgotten it - helpfully

explains that The Quest "had a

good story, but no script."

(It's a pile of scrap metal, but

the machinist is very strong on

the major concepts. Will that be

cash or credit?)


The Journal is a newspaper about

money, and the tunnel vision

shows up on a daily basis. The

paper's recent stories on Puff

Daddy's arrest on assault

charges ended with dry

paragraphs of facts and figures

on Bad Boy Entertainment, the

"company" nominally "run" by the

executive-stomping mumbler. So

it's not especially surprising

to see folks at the Journal

writing about the movie-making

business as if it were run by

former Con Agra accountants, who

actually had some sort of

understanding of or concern

about notions of tangible




But these bouts of Roundhead

budget purification are a

Hollywood story almost as

tried-and-true as "boy meets

wacky robotic supermodel who

turns his buttoned-down world

upside down!" And it always ends

the same way: with somebody

blowing the new fat-free budget

by buying the solid gold hats

for the whole cast and crew.

Former Disney studio chief

Jeffrey Katzenberg warned

several years ago about the need

to cut the arms, legs, and head

off the budget for every film

under his dominion. His vision

was sufficiently harsh and

sufficiently long-winded to

catch the attention of the

entire industry. These days, of

course, Katzenberg is suing the

bejesus out of his former

employer, hoping to soak many

hundreds of millions of dollars

out of the Mousewitz empire with

the claim that he's entitled to

a 2 percent cut, in

perpetuity, of every project he

ever had anything to do with at

the company.


So yes, money does matter to the

people who run the motion

picture industry: It's still one

of the better ways to keep

score. And it's the only way to

say "fuck you" to your personal

enemies, aside from stealing

their yoga instructors.



But then again, it's also hard

to blame the Journal for

mistaking the motion picture

industry for a business when

people within the thing have

made the same mistake

themselves. When Universal

Studios head Edgar Bronfman

proposed graduated ticket prices

last year - five bucks to see

McHale's Navy, 10 bucks to see

Titanic - he was acting a great

deal like someone who sold (for

example) orange juice and vodka.

But here, in layman's terms, are

the economic problems buried

inside Bronfman's idea,

uncovered by alert industry

insiders: How much pussy can you

scam if you're the producer of a

fucking $5 movie? In fact, the

chief objections raised to the

Seagrams scion's zany scheme was

not that expensive tickets would

drive viewers away but that

big-swinging-dick producers

would go head to head to see who

could make the most expensive



And frankly, that inflated clash

of egos strikes us as being more

in tune with movie industry

logic than fretting over how

many tens of millions of dollars

to spend on a remake of a Don

Knotts comedy. Tighter control

by the studios may appeal to our

Yankee common sense, but let's

be honest: America became the

world's movie powerhouse

precisely because we write blank

checks to coke-addled lunatics

with an insatiable appetite for

other people's money. And we've

loved every minute of it. In a

world without Ishtar, Waterworld, or

Tora! Tora! Tora! (the most

expensive film ever made about

rabbis), it's pretty clear that

survivors would envy the dead.

When we're tempted to put too

much faith in the wisdom of

hard-line studio chiefs, we

compare the surprise success of

Shakespeare in Love with the Sam

Goldwynism, "Nobody ever made

money on a picture where people

write with feathers." But making

a profit has never quite been

the point. It's the spectacle of

Jolly Green Giants shitting

money all over the land and the

Fabulous Little People running

out to play in the fertilizer.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers



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